Short Story – “Fluke”

Luke couldn’t help but notice that his shoulder felt fine as he began the 45 storey decent.

It has often been said that our lives flash before our eyes just before we die.  Perhaps a failsafe to show us the places we’ve been, the relationships we’ve formed and the things we’ve experienced to try and kick start a last ditch attempt at survival. Dangling the carrot to make you go that little bit further.  Congratulations, you’ve earned yourself some great prizes.  Now, would you like to leave with what you’ve got or would you like to gamble?

Even as it started, Luke realised that this built in defence mechanism was pretty much useless in his situation.  Hurtling towards the concrete below with a bullet tearing apart the muscles in his shoulder, it would take a monumental amount of luck to keep him in the game.  The first few moments felt like they were in slow motion.  He felt as though he could see each and every tiny movement of the hundreds of shards of glass that surrounded him.  And then, in those shards, the reflections of all he had seen and experienced.

Inconsequential moments in his early childhood.  The weird shit that kids remember.  An advert for some toothpaste with a catchy jingle and an ominous set of teeth that used to freak him out.  That time he stuck a stone up his nose and frantically tried to remove it in a blind panic, terrified that his parents would be angry with him.  A toy telephone on wheels that he barely played with but was always there.  Figuring out how to climb out of his cot.  Being sick in the high street.  The rabbit on his name badge on the hook he hung his coat on at Primary School.  He always bloody hated that rabbit.  Chris had a lion, Paul had an elephant; even Marie had that big dog thing, and that was way cooler, and she was a girl.  Why was he stuck with a rabbit?  It looked a bit off too, like an extra from Watership Down.  The bit in Watership Down when the seagull said ‘piss off’.  That was just about the funniest thing a five year old could see.  It was so naughty.  The time his birthday card was shown on the television.  Winning a huge great Transformer in a raffle.  Winning nearly four pounds on one of those 2p machines at the arcades on the seafront.  His Dad’s face when Luke got the winner in the Grand National and landed him four hundred and something quid.  Everyone was so happy with him but he had no idea why.  He could feel the combination of confusion and pride.  He was always winning.

More of that was to come.

The glass began to reflect full scenes rather than static images as his own burgeoning memory began to take shape, and he advanced into his school years.  He noticed they all had that soft fuzziness, like you see on old American television shows, and that weird brown tint that he always noticed in the photos of him as a kid in the eighties.  But it was different to just watching, he was reliving.  Simultaneously running through the events himself, while casually observing them behind the scenes.  It was as if his older self had always been there, watching his every move.  Rolling his eyes and smirking at the silly things he was doing.

A Christmas.  Not too sure when.  At a guess he must be about seven or eight.  He’d been awake for hours, clock watching; willing the hands round until seven when his parents said he could get up.  Those times were magical.  Sat in the dark, day dreaming about the contents of the parcels under the tree.  He looked at the clock as the second hand slowly crept past the twelve, closed his eyes and counted to sixty.  He had always been competitive.  Not so much against others, but against himself.  Setting himself tiny games to pass the time and prove his superiority over the laws that govern all of us.  He opened his eyes just as the hand hit twelve.  Perfect.  He allowed himself a little celebration, waited for the hand to complete its circuit, closed his eyes and started counting again.

‘…fifty seven, fifty eight, fifty nine, sixty!’

Spot on.  This was too easy.  Part of his competitiveness compelled him to make the challenges harder, so he found his Walkman, stuck in a tape, pressed play and put the headphones on.  The hand rolled round once more and he closed his eyes and started counting while the music blared in his ears.  It was distracting.  The rhythm was all over the place.  He couldn’t remember the band or even the song which was a bit odd as he was pretty sure he had listened to that tape hundreds of times.  But he could remember the moment he opened his eyes just as the second hand reached the top and the feeling of disappointment washing over him.  He’d won again.  This game was rubbish.

Shoe shopping.  God he hated shoe shopping.  The pressure was unbearable.  Caught between the desire to find the right pair so that the kids at school wouldn’t take the piss and the glare of an increasingly stressed Father as shoe after shoe were taken off his feet after a disgruntled scrunch of his nose.  Mum being Mum, all supportive smiles and wistful sighs at the whims of a fussy, ungrateful kid.  As Luke looked back at himself he wished that his younger self would look up at his Mum more.  His memories of her had always been fuzzy and he wanted to take this unlikely opportunity to catch a further glance.  But it wasn’t happening.  He was too fascinated with the overpriced lumps of material round his feet.  Ungrateful little shit.  Look at her you prick.  Look at her.

Stood in front of the mirror in the hall while Aunt Jools fussed over him.  Brushing non-existent dirt off his shoulders.  She’s avoiding looking at him in the eye, either directly or through the mirror, but Luke can see it in her face.  The look of exhaustion.  She hasn’t been sleeping, and every moment she’s been awake has been taking something out of her.  The loss has affected them all in different ways.  Jools has been frantic, panicked; sporadically exploding into floods of tears.  Dad is in denial.  Carrying on as normal.  Perhaps drinking a little more.  Luke is just numb.  Like something has come along and scooped out all of his insides, leaving a vacuous space inside his chest.  Everybody is being so nice to him but he can’t forget, not even for a moment.  It’s always there, nagging away at the back of his head.  He’s only eleven and she’s gone.

He can see the wake now.  It’s in some pub.  Not particularly fancy or up Mum’s street.  He realised back then that this was going to be the kind of thing he’d best get used to.  Crappy sandwiches and bowls of crisps.  Wandering around a sea of half-cut, chain-smoking grown-ups he gradually makes his way to Dad who is sat in the corner with a couple of his friends with a huge cloud of smoke hanging over them.  He catches his eye and smiles weakly.  Dad motions him over, and once he makes his way to the table, he’s lifted and placed on his knee.

‘How you holding up?’

‘Fine.  Bored though.’

‘Do you want to go to the park?  It’s only round the corner and I could do with the fresh air.’

Luke nods silently, and his Dad quickly finishes his drink before clicking his fingers in the direction of Jools.

‘Just nipping out for a bit.  Taking Luke to the park.  You alright here for a few minutes?’

Jools manages to drag her sobbing face away from her hanky just long enough to give a nod and a weird contorted half smile, half grimace and then they’re outside and his Dad lights another cigarette.

‘Got to get out of there for a bit.  It’s a bit much isn’t it?’

‘Yeah.’

Luke quietly slips his hand into that of his Dad’s as they make their way towards the park.  His Dad squeezes it three times.  He always used to do that.  Like a way of letting him know he was there without having to go through the embarrassment of actually saying it.

‘It might not seem like it now Luke, but we’re very lucky, you and I.’

As he finished, Luke narrowly avoided stepping in some dog shit and noticed a screwed up bit of paper in the gutter.  Letting go of his Dad’s hand, he stooped down to pick it up.  It was a fiver.

His Dad laughs to himself and flicks his cigarette butt expertly into the storm drain, before pulling the packet back out of his inside pocket and lighting another. Even back then Luke was kind of aware that Mum’s passing was related to those thin, burning sticks that grown-ups liked.  He definitely knew she had something wrong with her breathing.  The last few months she was a cacophony of wheezes and coughs.  Funny thing is, he never actually saw her smoke.  With Dad it was almost a constant presence.  It made him happy.

‘Here you go Dad.  You can buy some more.’

‘Nah, you keep it.  Get yourself some sweets or a magazine.’

‘O.K.’

They arrived at the park and Dad lifted him onto the swing and slowly built up the momentum until he was flying.

And then he was falling.

He was back to the now.  The pace was building up now and his memories started to come thick and fast.  The months after Mum went were pretty tricky.  He saw glimpses of his Dad and some woman drunkenly climbing the stairs as he peeked round my bedroom door. He saw Dad crying in the kitchen when he didn’t think he was there.  They saw Auntie Jools less and less until all that was left was him and his Dad, spending night after night in near silence as Dad drank and smoked until it was time to go to bed.

And then one day it got better and he came home from school to find Thirteen.

Looking at himself, he must have just been a teenager.  He was in his high school uniform and had just waved goodbye to his friends to see Dad standing at the door with a tiny black ball of fluff curled up in his arms.  A huge great smile cracked across his Dad’s face, the kind he hadn’t seen for a long time.  It was infectious and Luke smiled back as he inquisitively made his way up the garden path.  This memory was the clearest yet, as he looked at the tiny pile of hair and noticed it had whiskers and ears.  It was a kitten.  A beautiful, tiny, black kitten.

‘What do you want to call it?’

A few days later.  Luke has the video camera set up in the hallway watching Thirteen play with three ping pong balls.  She’s acting like a lunatic.  Entertaining, scaring and confusing herself in equal measure.  Then, she batters all three at once and they fly off into Dad’s bedroom.  Luke picks up the cat and makes his way in to retrieve the balls only to find that they’ve all made their way into the tin cup of Dad’s practice golf lawn.  Luke runs back into the hallway grabs the camera and records the result of his kittens superior golfing skills.

‘What are the chances of that?!’

This gives him an idea.  Setting the camera back on the tripod at one end of the room, he places the tin cup on top of wardrobe before standing at the other end of the room with the ping pong balls.  He throws each one individually and watches as they arc perfectly through the air before each one lands delicately in the cup.

He holds the results up to the camera.

‘Too easy, eh?’

He gets the balls, moves the cup to the back of the wardrobe so only the very top is visible and stands with his back to it at the other end of the room.  He throws each one over his shoulder, listening out for the satisfying ‘clink’ as they each fall perfectly into the cup.

The day his Dad found the videotape.  His was fuming.  Over three hours of Luke throwing ping pong balls into the cup in increasingly complicated and impossible ways.  Bouncing them off walls, off his head, through tubes, along surfaces, adding spin, blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, in the bath, from a different room, down the stairs, over, under, through, around with each scene finishing with all three balls landing satisfyingly into the tiny goal.  As his Dad ranted and raged, he couldn’t understand what he’d done other than make an incredibly cool video.  A week later he found out.

They said it could have been from a lit cigarette, but they were unsure.  Luke’s Dad was adamant though.  It was Luke’s fault.  Whatever had caused their house to be burned to the ground was on his conscience.

This is what happens when you waste your luck.’

Luke saw himself tentatively make his way through the wreckage.  It was destroyed.  Everything was lost.  Most of it could be replaced. Dad always did well for money, even when he was on his own, but some things, pictures of Mum, were surely gone forever.

His heart sank.  Thirteen.  Where was she?  He frantically made his way round the house, making the squeaking noise with his lips that normally saw her running.  Nothing in the kitchen, nor the living room.  He’d been warned not to climb the stairs as there had been significant damage, but he had to check.  Gently testing each step before placing his full weight, he managed to make his way to the top.  It was up here, on the first floor, that he saw the fire could be no one else’s fault but his.  The scorch marks on the wall, even to his untrained eye, clearly originated from his bedroom, the one place that Dad never lit up.

With the guilt now coursing through his entire body, he continued to search for his cat.  He clicked his fingers desperately calling her name over and over.  A movement.  From the corner of his room, under his bed.  Something was definitely there.  He made his way as quickly as he could over to the source of the noise and look under the remnants of his mattress.

Two green eyes stared back at him.  And right next to her, was an immaculately preserved picture of his mother.

He never told his Dad through fear of having the picture taken from him.  The very least he could have done would be to have listened to his Dad’s advice and never taken his gift for granted again.  Never pushed his luck.  Never wasted it.  Perhaps if he did he wouldn’t have found himself now only fourteen floors and less than two seconds from having his head smashed against the pavement.

The memories were a blur now. Like a time lapse film from a nature documentary.  The sun rose and set thousands of times as relationships grew and broke down, money came and went and his face became weathered with age.  Judy featured surprisingly little, Thirteen was a constant. He saw his futile and increasingly dangerous attempts to recapture the thrill of the Ping Pong Cup Afternoon.  Fruit machines, horse races, casinos.  A hundred card games; the continuous flow of money, the look of disbelief on his opponents faces and the ever decreasing satisfaction of winning.  It seemed that everything after the fire had been in direct defiance of his Dad’s advice.  Always pushing his luck.  Always wasting it.

Finally, he’s 45 storeys up, in over his head, pushing his luck that little bit too far.  As clear as it was a less than a minute ago, he saw the anger, the chaos, the gun, the bullet and the window.

Then, they were gone, and all he could see was the grey, emotionless expanse of concrete inches from his face.  He heard the sound of a few pieces of glass hit the pavement before he heard an unearthly crunch.  Then he could see and hear nothing.

A beat; and he felt nothing.

Childlines – Things My Kids Have Said

Cosmic cat talker and radiology specialist Noel Edmunds has been safely contained within weekday afternoons for some time now. But there was a time when his box-bothering face was exposed to millions, weekly, on a Saturday night. It was a dark and terrible time when the act of “gunging”; simply pouring a green coloured liquid on someone’s head; was seen as cutting edge family entertainment. Fortunately we’ve all moved on from such puerile, bottom-of-the-barrel programming and now have All Round to Mrs Brown’s to look forward to. The joke is she’s really a man! It’s really quite brilliant.

Edmond’s show, Noel’s House Party, achieved the astonishing feat of being a less inviting  than the U.K Independence Party. I’ll be honest, sign me up for a bit of racism and lying buses if it means I don’t have to act surprised and delighted when Bros turn up at the door. But one segment, “Wait Till I Get You Home”, in which a child was interviewed separately to their parents, stumbled upon the irrefutable humour goldmine that is kids say some funny old shit (although in retrospect you do really have to question the parenting of someone who was willing to leave their child alone with a seventies DJ).

In light of this knowledge, my wife suggested that we have a book in which we can record any particular highlights said by our children’s inbetween their constant bi-polar requests and refusals to eat. This book not only provides us with a constant source of amusement, but also means we don’t actually have to remember these instances and can use our precious memory space for more important things like the names and concepts of segments in nineties light entertainment shows.

Regular readers may know that round here I refer to my children as Samus and Blanka. Not only does it afford them a shred of anonymity, but also neatly captures their personality for all you geeks out there. Samus, my six year old daughter, is bright, methodical and confident in her own distinct style and individuality. Blanka, my four year old son, cannonballs round the house like he’s got several thousands volts of electricity coursing through his veins. They both pretty well behaved and I almost never daydream about disappearing off on a boat somewhere.

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The good book.

In any case, here, for your reading pleasure, are some of the things they say. Hope you enjoy them. I’ve spent the last couple of hours trying to be funny writing the above. They just shit these things out on a regular basis. Sickening.

Samus: “You’re so soft.”
Mummy: “Oh, thank you!”
Samus: “Like a cow”
As I was leaving her room after putting her to bed, Samus held out her hand. “Wait a minute Dad! Here you go. It’s a bogey.”
Daddy: “What are you asking from Father Christmas?”
Samus: “A train”
Daddy: “And what is Blanka going to get?”
Samus: “A train”
Daddy: “And Mummy?”
Samus: “A train”
Daddy: “What are you going to do with these trains?”
Samus: “Cho cho them over the floor”
Daddy: “Am I getting a train too?”
Samus: “No”
Daddy: “What’s your name?”
Samus: “Samus”
Daddy: “And how old are you?”
Samus: “Two”
Daddy: “And where do you live?”
Samus: “The White House”
Daddy: “Get in the house young lady.”
Samus: “I’m not a young lady. I’m a honky.”
Samus: “I’m just going to take off my sock so you can see the fluff on my nipples.”
Samus: “I’m not Samus, I’m the bravest tramp”
Whilst Samus is playing guitar on a broom I say;
Daddy: “Oh, you’re rocking out. Can I join in?”
Samus: “Sure.  Grab a mop.”
Samus: “If you see a bird say ‘Alan'”
Blanka: “ALAN!!!”
Samus: “Dad. The bad news is I’ve done a poo. But the good news is I’ve done a wee.”
Samus has invented a game but has decided to call it “Show Us Your Balls”
Samus: “I need to do something Dad. Just calm your horses down.”
Samus reads out a Valentine’s card she has written to us:
Samus: “Baa Baa Black Sheep. I’ll kiss you until you cry. Love from Blanka”
Samus is playing with a phone…
Samus: “Hello?  Stephen? Yes, yes, yes. I hate you. Goodbye.”
Mummy: “That wasn’t very nice.”
Samus: “He’s just a cat.”
Samus puts a plunger on Blanka’s head and claimed he “Looks just like a Grandad should”
Samus has asked for “splatted egg”.  We think she means fried.
Samus: “I’ve got sweaty alan’s”
Dinner time.  Samus, completely deadpan, drops her fork and looks me straight in the eye.
Samus: “Dad.  Are you Batman?”
Samus swears blind there is a Pokemon called “Classic Jones”
Blanka keeps refering to Pikachu as “Peter Chu.”
Blanka: “Can I touch the moon?”
Daddy: “No it’s too far away.”
Blanka: “Oooooh. Just a little bit.”
Daddy: “It’s too far away!”
Blanka: “Oh well. Maybe next time.”
I’m giving Blanka a shoulder carry.
Daddy: “What are you doing up there mate?”
Blanka: “I’m eating your hair!”
Samus is flexing her arm muscles.
Samus: “Check out these fancy boys.”
Blanka has invented a superhero called “Pussy Hump”
Samus has made one called “Hard Boy”
Samus: “Dad, on Father’s Day you can do anything you like.  Except burn the house down.”
Mummy: “So, what was your favourite thing at the fair?”
Samus: “My favourite thing was when Mummy was quiet”
Samus: “Do you know we came from monkeys?”
Daddy: “That’s right. Where did you hear that?”
Samus: “Nowhere. I figured it out myself.”
Blanka: “I”M GETTING GOOEY LOUIE! I’M GETTING GOOEY LOUIE!”
Blanka was opening a Christmas present. It was Gooey Louie.
Blanka has invented a dance called “Swag Your Bum Off”.
Blanka has made some superheroes called “Beeham” and “Foot Punk.”
He has also invented a video game called “Fight Breakfast”
Daddy: “Did you have a nice day today?”
Blanka: “Yep.  I didn’t fall over OR poo myself!”
Daddy: “Can you pick a bedtime story please?”
Blanks: “Nope. Too busy.” *does forward roll*
Blanka is pretending to be a superhero called Change. He can change into anything. Change’s brother was evil, so Change punched him to death in their bedroom. This meant Change has to live at Grandma’s.  Their parents were called Rocky and Stoney. Their Dad wore ladies shoes.
Samus: “When I die, I want to be buried next to you.”
Blanka: “Let’s play Mario Swimming!”
Daddy: “O.k.  How do you play that?”
Blanks: “Right. Y’know. It’s for one, two, three, four, five players. You’re on Bowser’s team and I’m on Mario’s. And it’s for five players. Ready? GO!”
Mummy: “Do you know what a Catholic is?”
Samus: “It’s someone with a big hat and a curly moustache.”
Blanka: “I did a pump and some poo-poo came out and it was melted”
Blanka had diarrhoea.
Samus: “Mummy is cuddly.  Daddy is like a bit of wood with nails in it.”
I act offended.
Samus: “Nah, it’s fine. The nails are your eyes, nose and mouth.”
Blanka: “I’ve done a wee but I didn’t touch my willy so I don’t need to wash my hands”
Samus: “Blanka, do you want to play musical statues?”
Blanka: “I’m Batman.”
Samus: “Batman, do you want to play musical statues?”
Blanka: *in a gruff voice* “Yes.”

Why I’m Raunchy For A Launchy

I am an impatient man, of this there is no doubt. My poor, long-suffering wife essentially has a grace period of about three minutes from the established home time in which to walk through the door otherwise I have a massive sulk and prepare the dinner in a passive aggressive way. You know the type; cutting the veg heavy-handedly so the knife hits the chopping board at a slightly louder than usual volume. Yeah. That’ll teach her.

This complete inability to wait has meant that I have often found myself picking up a new games machine on Day 1, despite the overwhelming body of evidence that tells me it’s stupid to do so. It’s more expensive, there’s barely anything to play and the hardware is almost guaranteed to develop a fault at some point down the line given that the manufacturers make all the mistakes on the first wave like parents do with their oldest child. I’m a first born and look at the fucking state of me. I’m the Red Ring of Death made flesh.

So why bother? Well aside from my aforementioned, Verruca Salt-style, “I want it NOW” personality, Launch Day is the closest I get as an adult to recreating the feeling of a childhood Christmas. It’s just so darn exciting, I genuinely lose sleep. Wrapped up tight in my duvet with a stupid grin plastered across my face, I speculate on the number of cable ties that hold the power supply unit in place or the number of languages on the health and safety information or if the BBC is going to do a bit on it on the breakfast news.

You’re a pioneer. At the bleeding edge. In the moment it’s easy to forget that you’re probably the millionth person to press the power on button. You know that Elbow song about opening your curtains? It’s like that. A thrilling adventure. A beautiful day. It’s cool as FUCK. It’s also a pretty sad commentary about our relationship with possessions and the dark pleasure that comes from their acquisition, ingrained in us since birth thanks to a relentless, capitalist machine constantly blasting advertising into our faces since birth  BUT NEVER MIND ABOUT THAT IT’S LAUNCH DAY!

Below are a few words about my launch day experiences, but please don’t take them as a recommendation that you join in. See them more an attempt to justify why I continue to cheerfully smash panes of glass against my head, paying several hundred pounds each time for the pleasure to do so.

2000 – PlayStation 2

Games: SSX, Fantavison.

I became an adult in the year 2000; a fact that my Mum spent my childhood telling me held some significance, despite the fact I’ve never met anyone else who gives this information even the most cursory of eyebrow raises. I was taking a year out and saving up for university; which as you can gather from this entry and the one below went swimmingly.

I was lording it up at home on nine and a half grand a year which was enough to make me feel like I was an international playboy. So when the chance arose to put my name down for a fancy black box that you could store horizontally AND vertically, well, you just don’t get many chances to be a part of a cultural milestone as huge as that very often.

And this was a launch where you PROPERLY had to put your name down. I don’t entirely remember all the details, but you actually had to have all your information jotted down and sent off to Sony. They said it was because the machine was in such high demand which sounds like total chinny reckon looking back on it. I wonder if all these forms still exist in a filing cabinet somewhere or if they were stolen in a low-tech, dry run of the great PS3 hack.I remember being somewhat disappointed that this system meant that actually collecting the device was rather civil. I popped into my local Electronics Boutique at opening time and me and some other saddo calmly carried our transactions in peace. There was no throbbing horde desperately clawing at the plastic bags. Nor a queue of nerdy, homeless people folding away their sleeping bags after roughing it for a week to catch a glimpse of Smuggler’s Run. Just “here you are”, “thanks”. Rubbish.

Fortunately, SSX was really good and Fantavision was pretty nice. And it was a DVD player too, so I got to watch Fight Club alone without my mum tutting over the punchy bits. Although my highlight of those first few weeks was the Metal Gear Solid 2 trailer which I watched so many times that seventeen years later, I’m thinking of using a reenactment of it as the basis for my debut one man show at Edinburgh Festival.

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They gave us this weird little book a week before PS4 launch which I’ve kept like your Grandad does with all the old newspapers

2001 – Game Boy Advance

Games: Kuru Kuru Kururin, F-Zero: Maximum Velocity

Remember when the Game Boy Advance was landscape before the clam shell re-design? No, of course you don’t, because it was completely fucking awful. My overriding memory of this shitshow is steadily making my way round the perimeter of our garden in order to find the perfect lighting conditions necessary to make this fucking thing borderline playable. I can’t even be sure I ever figured out the exact science to what those conditions were. The screen wasn’t back-lit, so did this mean I had to have the sun in front of me or behind me? Perhaps I needed to play perched upon its surface or deep within its fiery belly.

Despite being the first handheld ever designed with the angler fish player in mind, I completely caned the thing until my hands withered away and resembled those bastards that fall from the ceiling in Zelda dungeons. Kuru Kuru Kururin got the majority of my attention and I think I managed to complete it the day after launch in the kind of move that infuriated by parents back then. Fortunately, this was my own money now so they were slightly less bothered that a game which could broadly be described as “moving a stick” was consigned to the shelf before the Earth had completed a full rotation upon its axis.

Having experienced a slightly disappointing launch day experience first time round, I thought I’d mix it up by going to a Debenhams concession. Not entirely sure what I was expecting to be different; a Black Friday style fight up the escalators perhaps. Turns out there’s even less people bothered about getting into a department store bang on opening and I was the only prick there. Having worked in retail myself, there’s a special look of contempt that you reserve for customers banging the door down and the girl from the perfume counter had this nailed on. There wasn’t even a Blue Cross Sale on FFS. I gave her my trademark thank you/apology hybrid, hastily made my way through the ‘fumes, completed my business and left. Why do I find this exciting again?

 

2002 – GameCube

Games: Luigi’s Mansion, Super Monkey Ball, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle

Midnight opening mother fuckers!

There’s something fantastically stupid about leaving a shop at ten to one in the morning so that you can play a video game at the earliest possible opportunity. Not only does the process destroy your body clock for the foreseeable future, but excitedly making your way through darkened streets clutching a hefty looking plastic bag with GAME plastered across the front of it, is one stop short of having a huge, flashing neon sign attached to your head that reads “THIS WAY FOR A-MUGGING”.

Being a man powered by paranoia, I splashed out on a taxi to avoid any potential beat-‘n-steals. I generally walk everywhere, regardless of the weather, so this was quite an extravagance. But then I was also a student at the time and money and value had a strange, ethereal nature; ensuring I had the latest Nintendo was more important than petty things like food and shelter. I’d be shivering alone under three, threadbare jumpers and surviving on a diet of out-of-date, tinned turnip chunks in brine for the next few weeks but OMFG IF YOU PRESS AND HOLD Z ON THE STARTUP IT MAKES A DIFFERENT NOISE!

Before making the trek into town, I popped round a friends flat to find them playing “Centurion”; a drinking game that involves downing a hundred shots of beer on the minute, for a hundred minutes. “What a ridiculous and immature pursuit” I thought to myself before settling down to a night of Monkey Tennis. My love for Super Monkey Ball has been well documented  round here and it would prove to be one of my favourite launch games of all time. Quite what was going on when I decided to spend £40 on Sonic Adventure 2 is anyone’s guess; particularly when you consider that our local off licence would provide 40 bottles of the delightful tipple “Chardolini” for a similar price. I’ve never been totally convinced by Sonic and this wouldn’t be the game to win me over; if I wanted to listen to some terrible raps whilst pushing right I’d have gone to a facist hip-hop festival. I’m sure they exist and can be found locally.

I didn’t really like Luigi’s Mansion either, truth be told. But I’ve got to keep that quiet or the other fanboys won’t let me back in the secret treehouse. Generally though, this launch was a goodie; thanks to the machine being actually bloody brilliant but also amazingly priced. It was £130 on day one which makes it sound like it was released a hundred years ago. Back then, thrice tuppence and half-a-ta’happenny could buy you a return ticket on the steam tram, a pound of Dr Mavricks’ tobacco flavoured chewin’ fudge and a copy of Def Jam: Fight for New York.

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This is me on my way to the ‘Cube launch. I am not going to a boyband audition.  I would never smile like this again.

 

2004 – Nintendo DS

Games: Polarium, Project Rub, WarioWare: Touched!

Midnight opening. Mother fuckers.

My view of forcing retail staff out of their beds in the dead of night so that they could earn all of £7 because you couldn’t wait a few fucking hours changed somewhat when I was on the other side of the counter. Yes, around this time I found myself having tiny pieces of my soul chipped away as I sold another copy of fucking Ghost Recon or some shit whilst proper, real games like Baten Kaitos sat unloved on the shelf. “Fucking cretins” I’d think to myself, slowly transforming Dylan Moran’s character in the equivalent version of Black Books (which I guess would probably be called “Purple GAMEs”).

It does put a bit of a dampener on the experience when you know you’ve got to be up at seven in the morning to sell hundred of the things, but I soldiered on and managed to get mine home and play  bit of WarioWare. It wasn’t nearly as good as the original though; a sentence I’d become only too familiar in using when talking about that series. And Project Rub was basically the same thing but with all the humour replaced with sex people, Lynn. I enjoyed Polarium too which reminded me very much of Jessica Fletcher, in that it was a really good little puzzler.

There was little here to suggest that the DS would go on to be one of my all-time favourite machines, nor that touching stuff would become such a large part of gaming for years to come. Generally, I prefer things with buttons, which always makes me feel like a curmudgeony old twat (what a beautiful image I’ve painted for you there), but the DS won me over with a truly outstanding catalogue of left-field oddities over its lifespan.

I even bought a handcrafted stylus with my name on it. I bloody love styluses. I find something so lovably quaint about them. Like a stereo with a built-in minidisc player.

 

2006 – Wii

Games: Bomberman ’93, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, Wii Play, Wii Sports

Check out Richie Rich over here. Not quite sure how I managed to afford this little lot when at the time I was still employed by the nation’s most bafflingly successful high street chain. Perhaps whatever black arts they’re using to avoid bankruptcy rubbed off on me. Perhaps I just nicked it all. I’m joking, obviously. I don’t have the constitution to carry out a heist like that. I once accidently pocketed one of the pencils from Argos and spent the next few weeks on the run to Mexico.

Mind you, I was absolutely fuming at my paymasters in the lead up to this launch so a little rewengay wouldn’t have gone amiss. A few days before the big event, a memo went round stating that any staff pre-orders would not be honoured in order to make more units available for the public. It’s an interesting and unorthodox way to inspire your team before a big weekend I’ll give them that. Fearing the kind of response that would have made the French Revolution look like Dance Dance Revolution they quickly backtracked on this and I found myself with this mental little white box on launch day, back when we all still found the name hilarious.

Being a total fucking trailblazer, I actually filmed myself setting everything up and playing it for the first time. Unboxing videos are all the rage these days so it’s a shame I’m so utterly devoid of charm otherwise I could have stuck it online and made my fortune. Quite where this tape is now is anyone’s guess, which is a shame, as I’d quite like to be able to relive my first fumbled forays into motion controlled gaming. I bet at the start I was  waggling it around a bit too hard and at a funny angle. Like your mum.

Zelda was excellent fo’ obvs’ and I’d keep an eye on Wii Sports if I were you; something tells me that game is going to be huge. Banana Blitz was genuinely awful; perhaps the most disappointing launch game I’ve ever bought. One of the minigames; Monkey Flying Saucer or some shit; was like having a chimp scream directly into your face for three minutes like that monster does to the old lady in the Aphex Twin video. Horrible stuff. Bomberman was notable as not only being the first digital game I ever bought but also being responsible for the first time I swore in front of my parents. I took my new toy round to show off and despite having hundreds of bombing hours under my belt, I was roundly beaten by my then 12 year old sister. If that doesn’t deserve a loud, involuntary “oh for fucks sake” I don’t know what does.

 

2013 – PlayStation 4

Games: Call of Duty: Ghosts, Contrast, Need for Speed: Rivals, Resogun

Jesus Fucking Christ, look at the state of those games. With the exception of Resogun; which was, is, and always will be completely amazing; it’s like I’ve been possessed by “Thatch” from down the pub. He’s one of those guys who’s such a lad he gets referred to by a variation on his last name. Goes to Yates, always seems to have a new T.V, stands weird; you know the type.

Code magnolia levels of blandness aside, this launch felt pretty darn exciting. Mostly because it had been bloody years since the 360 and PS3 had been released so everyone was completely losing their shit. In that moment, seeing a slightly better defined gruff cockney in a full camo gear barking at you to take out tangos like you were laying siege to Britvic HQ seemed well worth the cost of entry.

In retrospect it wasn’t of course. This was a truly terrible launch. Elsewhere people were gritting their teeth through Knack or waiting for EA to get Battlefield 4 up and running. Thousands stuck in endless lobbies like the fevered cheese dream of Hotel Inspector Alex Polizzi. These days, the machine is more or less essential. But it’s safe to say it had a rockier start than the career of Sylvester Stallone.

This was the first time I experienced the majesty of having a machine delivered by DPD. DPD have a very clever strategy when it comes to establishing themselves as the best courier company, and it revolves around not being totally fucking shite. Rather than vaguely throwing your package over the border of your postcode or leaving it with your nearest designated drug addict, they actually attempt to hand it to you. It’s a brilliant concept.

Of course, my PS4 was delivered at half past four; at the exact moment I had to go out and collect the children. I’d naturally taken the day off work, so in order to keep myself busy I spent the day tidying the house. It was spotless. Like I’d been on the meth. I was so bored and restless that day I genuinely emailed Tesco to tell them of some excellent customer service I had recently received. Just wanted someone to talk to.

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The Switch doesn’t quite fit on the TV unit which doesn’t quite fit in the gap in the wall. My life.

2017 – Nintendo Switch

Games: 1, 2 Switch, Bomberman R, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I’m writing this but a week after launch so the dust hasn’t quite settled yet. I had hoped to finish this post beforehand to ride the wave of launch fever, but missed it on account of spending every waking moment staring directly into the face of the dining room clock, willing my life away.

This was another hang-around-the-house-and-wait-for-a-van launch. I’d got myself the DPD app this time round which is brilliant as you can frustratingly watch your driver making drops in your local area seemingly at random. It was actually an excellent bit of foreshadowing for Zelda; a game which puts so many delightful surprises round every corner it’s impossible to make your way around the map in a logical manner. My driver was a young chap called Alex who could barely mask his disgust as I opened the door before he knocked. Although to be frank, DPD are so much better than the competition, I’d happily sign for the package by being kicked in the balls and spat in the face.

Zelda is excellent, although I am feeling weirdly guilty about not finding it to be quite as good as everyone else is. I don’t know, all I’m saying is that I just don’t think it’s mankind’s single greatest cultural achievement. And climbing in the rain is total bollocks. Bomberman is better than the internet would have you believe, where the main complaint seems to be that it costs the amount of money that games do. I’ve played 1, 2 Switch for the best part of an hour. I wasn’t going to get it but totally panicked at the last moment and stumbled into a shop spilling money over the counter. It seems fun, although I still can’t believe that someone has rubber stamped that name. Minigames where you look like you’re vigorously tossing someone off are one thing, but there really is no excuse for a clumsy, horribly punctuated name like that. You are reading JollyNiceSoup.

There’s loads of stories circulating at the moment that the left controller doesn’t work and that the dock scratches your screen and that the whole machine was somehow implicated in 9/11. These kind of horror stories are par for the course this early on in a machines lifespan. I’m not too worried at the moment. I’m more concerned about how I’m going to feed my family for the rest of the month.

 

OMFG – Singstar

I was once in a school production of the popular musical Grease. During my years treading the boards I was very much in the mould of Daniel Day Lewis, so the transformation from a clumsy, waif-like boff to streetwise American proto-hipster was within my range and my performance was well received. There was, however, a catch. One of the downsides to landing a part in a musical is that you are often required to sing. Now, some would say my inability to hold a note would rule me out of contention entirely, but my talent was so vast (or the pool so shallow) that my teachers had to come to a ingenious solution. They simply suggested that I mime the singing bits. Perfect. A musical without live performance and a performer told he’s so shit he should probably just shut up. Inspiring. Leave no child behind.

You would therefore expect that video game karaoke would be somewhat unpopular round our way; seeing as it combines my greatest passion with my biggest weakness. It’s like a kryptonite cape; familiar and iconic but also constantly draining me of my life force. But my Singstar story is a tale of triumph over adversity. I once glanced through a collection of my PlayStation trophies and I discovered that my rarest was for Singstar. The criteria? Simply playing it for bloody ages. What I might lack in talent, I more than make up in persistence. Just give me a chance Simon, I won’t let you down. I always give 110%.

This thousand hour love story; told across generations; peppered with conflict, friendship and even a wedding; begins with a simple click of the fingers. A strong, purposeful beat delivered elegantly by a well-manicured hand. As the fingers slam upon the palm with a raw rhythmic power, the hand balls delicately around the wrist with an effortless flourish. The image has the grace of ballet but the sound has intensity of cannon fire. Surely this is a call to arms. What comes next will be remembered for eons:

People always talk about
Hey oh hey oh hey oh
All the things they’re all about
Hey oh hey oh hey oh
Write it on a piece of paper
Got a feeling I’ll see you later

For the uninitiated, these are the words of poet and academic Jamelia, taken from her seminal early 00’s release “Superstar”. This deeply provocative and timeless piece was chosen as the main theme for the first version of Singstar released on the PS2 back in 2004. Aside from its complex, layered exploration of all the things we’re all about, Superstar was also a perfect introduction to the world of competitive singing. In a game where sound was objectively valued and given a score, Superstar was ideal given that it was so monotone it could probably be performed to reasonable standard by Droopy the Dog.

You see, Singstar doesn’t care if you sound good, it just cares that you sound right. As the glittering bars fill the screen it patronisingly assures you that you’ve nailed it. You definitely sound just like Minnie Ripton. But as anyone nearby possessing a pair of ears will attest to, playing the footage back can be a dispiriting experience. Even if you hit all the right notes in the right order, you still sound awful you bloody drunk.

Which is where stage presence, a.k.a showing off, comes in. The PlayStation 3 version introduced the ability to record a short snippet of your performance which you could then play back at the end. The genius of this addition was that it gave you the heads up that it was coming so that you could prepare. Here it comes. Your spotlight.

My PS3 is filled to the brim with powerfully embarrassing ten second clips of myself, my wife and my close friends stumbling around living rooms briefly convinced of our own talent. Sofa cushions quickly appropriated into Jamiroquoi style hats. Scissor Sisters impressions that somehow manage to be more camp than the originals. You have not known pain until you’ve witnessed two nerds from East Anglia perform “Beep” by Will .I.Am and The Pussycat Dolls. Think you’ve reached peak cringe? Think again bitches. Here we all are making gang signs during Fix Up Look Sharp.

Great performances called for synchronisation. Teamwork. I consider Singstar to be one of the finest co-op games of all time. In duet mode, the score between you was shared and you would naturally assist one another by in one continuous feedback loop. Find yourself totally out of key in the chorus whilst your partner is nailing it, and a quick shift of concentration from what you’re seeing to what you’re hearing could find your voice clicking into place. Their enthusiasm, their passion and their enjoyment helped motivate too. Often hitting the right notes was just a case of giving it some welly. And with your high scores signed off with a photo of the victorious pair, there was plenty of scope for further shenanigans. The games unusual scoring system, where each song is capped at 10 000 points regardless of its difficulty, meant that perfection always felt tantalisingly within reach. A friend an I once agonisingly hit 9 800 on Supergrass’ Richard III. A mere 200 somethings from a technically perfect Gaz Coombes. It truly was the hardest thing you’ll never know.

Of course it wasn’t all about attributing value to art. Scores were all well and good but sometimes it was fun to just try and attempt something that was nigh on impossible to sing. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys has some truly next level harmony shit going on. “Rock Me Amadeus” required you to learn how to rap in German on the fly. “Take on Me” had that winning combination of lulling you into a false sense of security during the verses before detonating your lungs during the chorus. But The Bees’ “Chicken Payback” was Singstar on Legendary mode. Its insanely difficult, tongue-twisting tale of financial transactions within the animal kingdom required the kind of concentration normally only seen in the operating theatre, and remained a firm favourite long after the wider world had completely forgotten about its existence.

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There is a PS$ version but it’s bum. This is where it’s at, complete with main theme provided by Wolfmother (no, me neither)

Which is also the kind of thing that’s responsible for one of the games more obscure, accidental charms. Due to its relatively brief period of insane popularity, Singstar is a pretty good record of music during the mid to late 00’s. The mix of classics with what was popular at the time means that the likes of Bowie, Presley and The Rolling Stones rub shoulders with the “remember-thems?” of Orson, Ne-Yo and Daniel Bedingfield. Nostalgia in video games is generally restricted to the game itself. Unlike music, film or television, they very rarely reference outside of the medium. But Singstar has the early century coursing through its veins. It’s emotive of that time in a way that normally only music manages.

Of course, the relevance of this will largely depend on what you were doing at that time. Me? I’d just moved into a house with this lady I fancied and was enjoying those few blessed years of freedom before we lost our minds long enough to think it was a good idea to have children. Is it an exaggeration to say that our relationship was forged and cemented within Singstar? Possibly. But for a couple of years, this is what we did together. Our Friday nights were spent drinking every last remaining drop of liquid in the house whilst destroying the entire history of pop music. I’m not proud of it, but we got through several sets of neighbours during this time.

But those performances! The hours spent perfecting our Paula Abdul and MC Skat Cat or our Beyonce and The Other Two. The time we discovered that we could completely smash Parklife (this is probably largely down to the fact that I was born and raised in the same town as Blur and also that I’m married to Phil Daniels). I’m fairly certain the last time we saw my grandad before he died, we signed off our relationship by delighting him with a rendition of Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers”.

Or even that day we got married. Yes, I’m afraid to say, we’re one of those insufferable couples that did “a thing” at our wedding (although this was nearly ten years ago now so I consider us to be trailblazers in the world of lol random first dances). Run DMC’s “Tricky”, our go-to Singstar track, performed in full with the kind of enthusiasm you only get after a day of everyone doing everything you want and several thousand gallons of booze.  We’d managed to keep it secret until the performance so I’m sure we delighted and confused in equal measure. Although I do remember my best man cheerfully shouting in my ear afterwards that it was “the best thing I have ever seen, which was probably the most important and life-changing thing anyone had said to me all day.

This is going to sound naff as all fuck, but in many ways Singstar is more than a game to me. It’s a collection of memories. I dread to think of the money I spent on it over the years in its numerous guises or on its “only a pound per song” DLC, but without it I might never have learned how to rap a rhyme that’s right on time. I might never have learned that I have exactly the same vocal range as Thom Yorke (honestly, it’s spooky. My scores were consistently the worst amongst my friends except for Radiohead where I would always inexplicably smash it). I almost certainly would never have discovered that Dido’s “Thank You” is immeasurably improved with the introduction of a foul-mouthed hype man. So if it’s all the same to you Mr Smith and Mrs Heare, I won’t be miming during Greased Lightning thank-you-very-much. I’m going to sing. And to Singstar;

I want to thank you.
(Wanna mother fucking thank you)
For giving me the best day-ay of my life
(Of my mother fucking life)
And oh-oh, just to be with you
(Just to mother fucking be with you)
Is having the best day of my life.

 

 

 

The Games I Liked The The Most In 2016 Arranged In Numerical Order For Your Convenience With Words Justifying Their Position

Well, that was a load of old bollocks wasn’t it? We should have perhaps realised that the writing was on the wall when 2016 was confirmed as the year that The Last Guardian would finally be released; a sure a sign of the impeding apocalypse as any. But who would have guessed that by the time this complete urinal cake of a year finally gave way and disintegrated down the piss hole we’d be wistfully reminiscing about the day David Bowie died. Good times man, good times.

In a year so depressing I considered changing my moniker to MoroseBitterGruel, video games provided a welcome escape and below I present to you my top ten of the year. Hope you all enjoy it given that this time next year I will probably be etching my countdown into the salted earth of a radioactive wasteland. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a feeling that next year’s President Evil is going to be the most terrifying yet.

Stay strong everyone.

10. SUPERHYPERCUBE (PSVR)

If you would have told me back in the nineties when I was a teenager that come 2016 I would be experiencing real virtual reality in my living room I would have said “well, given the current rate of improvements in technology that sounds about right”.

Fortunately I’m a slightly less of a huffy, know-it-all prick these days, so the arrival of an headset that actually places you within a game would have made my eyes pop out of my head were it not for the fact they were wedged against my skull by several hundred pounds worth of plastic. SUPERHYPERCUBE provided exactly the kind of experience I was after; transporting me to a world of brilliant neon, sharp lines and neat organisation that I would happily live in were it not for the fact that some people would inexplicably miss me. Everything makes beautiful, simplistic sense here. A shape hangs inches from your head whilst a hole in a barrier behind slowly makes it’s way towards you. Your task is to twist the shape so that it fits through the gap before the wall crashes into your face. Succeed and the shape increases in size until you’re dealing with the kind of Lego monster you’d expect to see built by a kid called Connor who hasn’t learned how to share. The relentless pressure, the endless horizon, the distinct building blocks; It’s all a bit like being in the middle of a Daft Punk song.

Aside from the mind-bending awesomeness of being inside this electroscape, the VR actually provides you tangible benefit. Looking over the top or round the object to get a better perspective may sound gimmicky as all fuck, but it’s something feels like the future. This world has weight, depth and physicality. It almost feels like a funky, three dimensional Tetris. And all this despite the fact it’s basically a techno version of the early evening BBC programme Hole in the Wall. SUPERHYPERCUBE was sadly released at a ridiculous price and so struggled to find an audience, but it’s the kind of exciting, thoughtful experiment that deserves to be experienced. As the distressingly orange host of the aforementioned light entertainment show might say, “bring on the wall!”

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“DVNO, FOUR CAPITAL LETTERS!”

9. Pocket Card Jockey (3DS)

Ugh, horsey people. They’re the worst aren’t they? With their hay, and their wind chimes and their oddly sexual boots. Trying to persuade you that horses are majestic beautiful animals when in reality they look like giant, mutant shrews. I went horse racing for the first time this year and left just as confused as I arrived. It’s a world that exists on the peripheral of my reality. Which is perhaps why the introduction of a card game to its structure actually resulted in something I could understand and enjoy.

Pocket Card Jockey places you in the jodhpurs of an up-and-coming rider and builds upon the idea of pushing your horse at the right moments and playing to its strengths, by mixing it with a game of good ol’ fashioned solitaire. Wait, come back! What might appear to be two pastimes only tenuously linked by gambling, actually fit remarkably well and result in a game of deep strategy. The RPG element that’s been thrown into the mix; where you can help your horse develop and grow by collecting cards on the track; means that in some cases it’s not a good idea to push your trusty steed to victory in every race. Add in the pasture where you can retire and breed your previous race winners in order to meld all their lovely, delicious genes and you start to realise that there’s an awful lot more going on here than first appears. There’s a captivating ebb and flow to each race; careful, quiet consideration as you try and move your horse into it’s best position sandwiched between quick-thinking rounds of cards. And, as is the case with a lot of Nintendo’s output, the localisation is absolutely brilliant with genuinely funny conversations between the player, stable owner and the procession of bizarre horse owners in between each cup. If all this doesn’t sound enough, then you also get name your horses. Yes, just like in real horse racing, you too can give an animal a name that sounds like it’s been lifted from the graffiti in a Victorian asylum.

Pocket Card Jockey is an idea so mental, that it would have probably been left on the whiteboard in an episode of The Apprentice, but it bloody works. I’m a changed man. I love horses. Best of all the animals.

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They’re my friends

 

8. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4)

Let’s get the huge, exquisitely rendered, beautifully detailed elephant in the room out of the way first; Uncharted 4 is an astonishingly good-looking video game. It’s completely fucking ludicrous. Every nook has been lavished with care and attention, and the crannies; Jesus Christ, the crannies; you’ve ain’t ever seen crannies like these. There’s a bit early on where Nathan Drake has a bite to eat and it’s the greatest scene of animated chewing ever created. It’s only a minute long and must have taken someone weeks to get right. “How’s work going, honey?” “Stressful. Nearly finished that big rumination project. I’ve got the roll on the right hand side of the jaw right but I just can’t crack that fork-to-tounge moment.” “You’re too much of a perfectionist. It’s not the Sistine Chapel. You haven’t showered in days. I’m worried.” “You don’t understand! This is a pivotal moment! If I get this right, it could open some really big doors for us! Sure, it’s chewing now; but next it could be the sweat glistening on Sully’s moustache. They might even give me a crumbling platform. Imagine!” “I’m going to be staying at my Mother’s for a bit. Look after yourself.”

So yes, it is very pretty. As for the actual game bit; the shooting is perfectly good fun (if a bit of a step back from what the series has done before) and the platforming improved so it’s now less like following the one predefined route to the top and more like picking from three (yes, three!) slightly different routes to the top. Oh, the possibilities. But if this all sounds like a bit of a downer for one of my favourite games of the year, then at around the halfway point, A Thief’s End has one of the most extraordinarily lavish and spectacular single levels I can recall. Starting with a quiet walk through a market and culminating in the kind of ridiculously over-the-top car chase that previously only existed in the mind of a six-year old playing with Hot Wheels, I’m amazed that the amount of money that must have been pumped into this single half hour didn’t spark another global financial crisis. This level is Uncharted 4 in a nutshell; gaming’s Faberge egg; utterly pointless, fairly undignified and will probably break if you handle it too roughly, but you can’t help but be impressed by the artistry.

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This is just a bit of stuff hidden down a hole in Uncharted. Look at the fucking state of it.

7. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Wii U)

Perhaps concerned that the title wasn’t quite incomprehensible enough, the ‘#’ is actually pronounced ‘sharp’ rather the word that you’ve already internally used twice. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in a game that so intensely Japanese it would have needed a whole, Michael Palin travelogue to cover everything.

Our heroes are members of Fortuna Entertainment; a talent agency whose books boast a detective show where the protagonist changes her personality whenever she sneezes and “Microwavin’ with Mamori”, a cooking show which consists of a teenage girl nuking a ready meal. Still with me?  Good, because these celebrities (or “Idols” to use the vernacular) spend their free time banishing demons that feed upon talent using weapons based on characters from the strategy game series Fire Emblem. These weapons are forged by a computer program of a pop star, under the watchful eye of ex-fashion model who spends her time shit-faced, sending inappropriately sexual text messages to her staff.

So far, so lol Japan. But what makes this the first JRPG I’ve actually seen through to the end in about ten years is an immensely satisfying combat system which builds gradually rather than throwing a thousand things at you all at once. Success in battles is achieved through “sessions”; a kind of combo system where one attack can result in over fifteen hits if you’ve got all the moves lined up correctly. Not only are these pleasing to put together, but also great fun to witness. You could start by back-flipping and firing an arrow over your shoulder, before a teammate roars in waving a spear and shouting “nice combination!” and then follow it up with a blast of magic punctuated by the caster smugly pointing directly down the camera. If this isn’t enough, why not have two of your characters perform a little health restoring J-Pop duet in the middle? Tokyo Mirage Sessions may not make the slightest bit of sense but it has a cheerful attitude and sunny disposition that’s just plain good to be around. Nice combination indeed.

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“Music Fes” is of course a traditional Japanese holiday celebrating tiny impractical red hats

6. DOOM (PS4)

I’m not entirely sure that someone would be able to make a less “me” game if they tried. I’ve got no particular affinity for the original games, it sounds like listening to the ambient noise of Download festival from a couple of miles away, it’s so violent I actually let out a few Mary Whitehouse style “well, I never”‘s and it does that annoying thing reboots do of giving it the same name as the original (see also number 5). I mean, the title gives you all the information you need to know; it’s not just Doom, it’s DOOM; all capitals because it never tidies its room and it hates its parents.

But despite doing just about everything it can except for surreptitiously feeding me mushrooms in order to put me off, DOOM completely won me over with its pace, ferocity and the sheer size of its balls until I was unironically doing the devil/rock hand gesture and sticking my tongue out for photos. It’s just so fucking fast. The key to success is to continuously move forwards; leaping from one grotesquely extravagant dismemberment to the next. The “Glory Kill” mechanic, which awards you for finishing off the beasts with a melee style finishing move, means that you have no choice but to get stuck in. It’s a bit like when you see a vet get shoulder deep inside the back end of a cow; there’s no messing, no hesitation you just put on your gloves and get right up there. One of the finishing move animations literally consists of ripping out a demon’s back passage. How can you not fall for a game where anal prolapse is a legitimate tactic? Whisper it, but the constant bombardment and relentless speed reminds me a little of Geometry Wars. There’s nowhere to hide. In the entire playtime of the campaign I didn’t peak out of cover once. Fancy that. In this day and age, a FPS where you don’t spend half your time hiding like a total fucking pussy.

And if all of this makes it sound like just dumb fun, then think again. Like Oliver Read stumbling around a chat show, there’s a fierce flash of intelligence behind its crazed, wide-open eyes. Enemies flank you, take the high ground and retreat. Encounters feel as much as a battle of wits as a battle of wills. And somewhere, a couple of hours in, it began to dawn on me that DOOM is in on the joke. Despite being presented in a po-faced fashion, it’s beautifully self-aware. It knows it’s over-the-top and completely fucking ridiculous. It finds itself funny and that feeling is infectious. Both resolutely old-school yet forward thinking, utterly revolting yet totally hilarious, thick as shit yet wickedly clever, this is easily my best surprise of the year. Pass me a bottle of Hobgoblin and stick on some metal, I’m totally on board now.

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Nah, the sky is supposed to do that. I’m sure it’s fine.

5. Amplitude (PS4)

I like to keep this on the down low, but I’m really quite the fan of rhythm action games.  So when the opportunity arose to crowdfund Harmonix (creators of the Greatest Game of All Time, Rock Band 3) to make a sequel to Frequency (which happens to be the 2nd Greatest Game of All Time), I played it cool and immediately wrenched my monitor from my desk before launching it the general direction of my bank in the vague hope that the money would somehow transfer quicker. When the game finally arrived, I was a kidney down and had plunged my family into the kind of hopeless debt usually reserved for Batchelor of Arts graduates, but at least I had a nice poster.

Fortunately the game was pretty good in’all. Taking the tried and tested method for rhythm action genius perfected first time in Frequency and then wisely doing absolutely fuck all to it, this is a fine return to the hypnotic undulating lanes and phat improvised beats that I’ve probably spent more time playing with than I have my own penis. The completely in-house soundtrack has a handful of total stonkers (and a couple of absolute stinkers. I’m not sure anyone asked for the excruciating Dad-rap detailing the history of Insomniac Games; featuring the line “new intellectual properties, that’s one of our core philosophies” from the studio that brought us a million, billion near-identical Ratchet and Clank games) and will have you dancing across the pad like Fred Astaire when he’s showing off. The dark, apocalyptic finish of Decode Me, the reach-for-the-lasers break in Dalatecht, the funky finger fucking of Do Not Retreat; the quality tracks shine through and make a strong case for composing songs specifically for this type of thing.

Amplitude 2016 is another fine entry to this truly monumental series and will surely never fail to attract blank looks whenever I mention it to normal people. But then if we’ve learned anything this past twelve months it’s that normal people are total pricks.

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To me, this is what pornography looks like

4. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (PSVR) 

A moment of hushed silence please for what must be one of the finest game names in recent memory. It’s funny, it makes you think “woah, who’s that guy?!”, and is actual sound advice for playing the game. Keep Talking is a brilliant recreation of that bit in films where a sweaty man nervously waves a pair of wire cutters over a ticking bomb whilst a room of suits yell at him through an earpiece. One player dons the VR headset and can see the bomb, but the other players have the actual instructions on how to defuse it (printed off the internet and bound in a polythene pocket manual if you’ve got any sense. You can just read the instructions off the telly but if you’re doing that who the fuck are you, get away from me).

I admit it was with some trepidation that I first fired this up alongside my wife; memories of that fateful evening we attempted to play the PS2 co-op game Kuri Kuri Mix and very nearly ended up in a Kathlene Turner/Michael Douglas style War of the Roses situation still painfully fresh in my mind. But with a bag packed and my solicitor on speed dial we gave it a go, and do you know what, it was actually a bloody lovely way of discovering just how great we are at communicating with each other. The masterstroke is that the game revels in being a total bastard. Red wires and blue wires sit next to red AND blue wires, you have to clearly differentiate between buttons that read “your”, “you’re”, “you are” and “u r” whilst others say read nothing and others literally read “nothing” and you have to contend with complete bollocks symbols that force you to develop your own language. Both my wife and I now have a shared understanding of what a “fancy six” or a “half-hearted three” look like.

It’s a fantastic idea delivered with a mischeavious chuckle and our time with it didn’t result in a single argument. The secret to a successful marriage? Keep Talking.

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“Experience is the best teacher” seems like pretty poor advice in a job where failure can remove your head

3. Rhythm Paradise Megamix (3DS)

A rhythm action game made by Nintendo; a sentence that makes me feel all peculiar. Like “do you want to order a curry” or “I’m popping out with the kids for a couple of hours”. This WarioWare-esque, beat-matching series has been hitting my buttons in time since the original on the the GBA, but had never quite reached the dizzying heights of that outstanding debut…*dramatic pause*…until now!

Cherry picking from the finest selection of rhythmic mini-games of the past ten years and then adding a bunch of it’s own for good measure, Megamix is an embarrassingly vast and relentlessly joyful exploration of what you can do with the simple mechanic of “press the button when I tell you to”. The smart thing here is that it never actually gets all that complicated and the difficulty comes from the myriad ways in which the game attempts to put you off. You might be a lumberjack bear quite happily chopping wood in the forest, only for a bunch of cats to do a bizarre Cossack-style, bendy hip dance in the background. Or you might be a golfer happily smashing hole-in-ones from balls rolled to you by a chimp (you heard), only for the music to shift gear, whales to start spouting water from their head holes and a baboon to begin furiously raising the roof with a grim look of determination on its face. When I think of all the grief I used to give my sisters for so much as breathing at the wrong time whilst I was trying to concentrate on a game, here I’m actively looking forward to the ways in which I’m distracted. And although the surrealism is frequently hilarious (a level where the world’s smugest chameleon plucks bugs from the air perched on an Elvis impersonators foot very nearly killed me), it’s also genuinely witty in the small cutscenes telling the story of Tibby and his fabulous blue afro on their quest to get back to heaven. I’m generally not one for catchphrases but I’ll admit to using his regular cry “Let’s we go, amigo” more than once in real life.

Frequently surprising, often touching and capable of causing smiles so broad they’ll make your face ache, this is one of the best games available on the 3DS and I will solemnly apply my family seal to that proclamation.

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These two are talking about pork rice bowls. Seriously.

2.Virginia (PS4)

An authority figure in my life once held me in a steely, troubled gaze and told me in no uncertain terms “don’t try acid”. I possess the kind of brain that makes the wine tasting bit in a restaurant seem like a trip through Dante’s nine circles of hell, so it’s probably just as well I took the advice to heart. But Virginia; a barely interactive, Twin Peaks inspired murder investigation; gives me a pretty good idea of what would have happened had I lost my mind and gone full Fear and Loathing.

An at times moving, terrifying and exhilarating journey through small town America, with an atmosphere quite unlike any other game I’ve played before, Virgina also boasts an incredible music score that melds beautifully with the narrative beat for beat. Without a single line of dialogue and gameplay that amounts to little more than pressing up, Virginia had me visibly shaken and frantically Googling synonyms for ‘brilliant’ so I could try and describe to my mates just how ‘corscurcant’ it was.

In retrospect, Virgina is an important and well-timed game too. Placing you in the shoes of a black woman in the white male dominated world of American law enforcement, it does a beautifully subtle job of conveying everyday discrimination. The sneering sideways glances, the suspicious body language, the dismissive eye rolls of the local sheriff, the guy that only leaves you alone in the bar when you flash a wedding ring; from my privileged position it all started to bring me to the Earth-shatteringly obvious conclusion that maybe, just maybe, life still isn’t fair and perhaps we should give people a bit of a break..?

That is, when I wasn’t trying to figure out why a buffalo kept popping up. Or the significance of the little red bird. Or what was in the ornate box. Or who to trust, or what day it was or why I felt like my brain was slowly dribbling out of my ear. Virginia is a unique, beautiful, unmissable trip that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in storytelling, video games or otherwise. It’s utterly essential. Just don’t ask me to try and explain what the fuck was going on

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I know what you’re thinking; “not another ‘putting on your lipstick’ section”

1. Overwatch (PS4)

For me, there’s only ever really been one contender for the top spot this year. Overwatch grabbed me by the chops in the spring and resolutely refused to let me go all year. Keeping in mind that I have the attention span of a toddler that’s been hitting it hard on the Fruit Shoots, that’s quite the achievement.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this team based, online shooter captured my imagination so successfully, but what is certain is that I love it. I mean, I think I actually love it. Genuinely. When I think about it my tummy goes all funny and I sigh and look off into the middle distance. Perhaps it’s because I admire the almost unfathomable complexity. With 6-a-side and over twenty heroes to choose from, the skill to be able to balance the millions of possible combinations so no lineup ever feels unfair makes my brain ache. It’s like the world’s most intricate game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Everytime you find yourself butting against a brick wall, all it takes is a deep breath and a good stern look at the character select screen to find the right tool for the job.

Or maybe it’s because that screen is bursting at the seams with brilliantly designed characters. Symettra; the OCD architect who creates structures from thin air by bending the fabric of reality. Zenyatta; the peaceful robotic monk from an order deep in the Himalayas who believe that those with artificial intelligence possess a soul. Tracer; the lovable, time-travelling urchin from ol’ Laaaaaandaaaan town cheerfully zipping around the maps like Martine McCutcheon fitted with a flux capacitor. Bastion; a machine built for death who has left his purpose behind and now travels the world quietly discovering the beauty of nature and I’m terribly sorry, you’ll have to excuse me I appear to have something in my eye. Even the shitter ones have something about them; a spark of personality, a funny line, a victory pose; and it’s lovely that such a wide range of humanity is represented here. How many games have a fuller body shape character like Mei and don’t follow it up by making her bits visible from every direction? How many games let you play as a 60 year old Arabic woman? How many games feature a homosexual front and centre on the box?

Perhaps I love it because these characters are part of a compelling, epic story that never gets in the way. In game, it’s told though snippets of conversation or incidental, blink-you’ll-miss-’em details in the environment. Outside the game, it’s told through webcomics, Pixar quality short films and huge labyrinthine puzzles that take the combined brainpower of the entire community to pick apart. The story is there if you want it and completely avoidable if you don’t.

Perhaps it’s in the sparks of genius and the “why-hasn’t-anyone-done-this-before”‘s. The mobile turret. The healing sniper. The self-destructing tank. The characters are all essentially predefined load outs and there’s no upgrade path so a beginner has the same kit as someone that’s played for hundreds of hours. They’re all so easily identifiable that you instantly know what you can do and what you’re up against. The Play of the Game at the end of every match which shows all the participants a short video of the fanciest action and makes you feel like a total badass when it’s about you.

Perhaps it’s all these things. But it’s probably the fact that in actual play Overwatch never falls below a spectacular high bar of non-stop, balls-to-the-wall, face-melting, heart-in-mouth entertainment. It’s just plain outrageously fun to play. And in the year of fucking Brexit there’s something beautifully poetic about one of it’s biggest games being about a group of representatives from different nations working together to achieve common goals. It’s beautiful, funny, intense and I’ll be playing it for years. I simply must insist that you do the same. I love it. I love it.

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This is Symettra. She is my spirit animal.

 

OMFG – Super Monkey Ball

In the first in what I hope to be an illustrious and widely celebrated series, OMFG (standing for ‘OneofMyFavouriteGames’) will be a collection of love letters to the very best gaming has to offer. It won’t just be a list of Nintendo and rhythm action titles, I promise.

As has been documented elsewhere on this here blog, I am far from a social butterfly. I’m more a grumpy moth, and anyone that has had the displeasure of being a guest in my house will have experienced the nagging sensation that I want them to clear off so I can get back to quietly sobbing myself to sleep. But for one brief moment back in the early 00’s, my tiny student digs was one of East Anglia’s premier nightspots. Revellers came from near and far (other rooms in the flat and just over the road) to sample the simple delight of flinging a monkey down a bowling alley. Not literally of course; one of my housemates was studying animal sciences and wouldn’t stand for any of that caper; but within the confines of a video game that only ever could be created by Sega at their sunny day, simplistic, batshit best. This was Super Monkey Ball and it was totally bananas.

Before I go off on one about the multi-player (heralded by the fantastically cheesy and confusing inclination of the voice sample ‘party games…?!’, as if the game was questioning your decision to find fun in flinging an ape down a ramp and send it soaring through the sky), I should perhaps spend some time taking about the solo experience.

It was alright.

I’m being flippant of course. But talking about the perfectly serviceable maze based challenges that made up the solo campaign strikes me like focusing on the quiet shared understanding when you catch a chimp’s gaze rather than how funny it is when they throw their shit at each other or wank themselves off. Perhaps it was a nobler pursuit; a more elegantly designed and thoughtful section of the game. Perhaps more satisfying too; I daresay an entire generation of gamers have the first time they cleared the level Expert 7 etched into their memory.

But it just plain wasn’t as fun as the other bit. In a game as infectiously colourful as this, the image of a solo player perched on the edge of their chair, face locked in grim determination just doesn’t seem like a good fit. No. For me, Monkey Ball was a bunch of mates drunkenly cheering, jeering and dropping c-bombs with wild abandon.

You see, Monkey Ball, and Monkey Bowling in particular, was such a big part of our social lives it was responsible for creating an entire dictionary of terminology. And most of these revolved around the concept of “Cunting Over”. At this juncture I feel the need to point out here that we were about as far removed from a bunch of roudy ladz and laydeez as you could possibly imagine. For starters we were spending our student days indoors perfecting our bowling spins rather than trying to have sex with each other. So Lord only knows how repeated use of the word cunt became such an integral part of this cheerful little game but it’s origins are now lost in a cloud of rizla papers and cheap wine.

Anyway, Cunting Over was essentially giving the next player the minor inconvenience of having to wait for the ball to roll down the alley before they could have their go. If your first ball resulted in one remaining pin then you were in prime cunting territory. Get your shot lined up perfectly and then set the monkey on his way with minimum power and his agonising crawl down the lane towards a spare was seen as the ultimate insult. Manage something a little bit more flashy; like adding a bit of spin or knocking down more than one pin and your cunting would be elevated to the status of “Mimi’s Golden Cunts”. Balls it up by not achieving the spare and you’d feel the dark terrible shame of contributing to “Gongon’s Cunting Blunders”. It was a beautiful example of adding your own pointless twist. Nothing more than a stylish flourish to make loses that little bit more humiliating.

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In my head, this delightful collection of family friendly apes basically represent the word “cunt”

At the danger of turning this into a post of in-jokes and you-had-to-be-there’s, Monkey Ball is also responsible for the most hilarious argument I have ever beared witness to. Myself and three others decided to have a quiet evening trying to land on the tiny, moving, big point platforms in Monkey Target (given the decidedly less offensive but equally satisfying term of “plinthing”). Suddenly another member of our group burst through the door. Now, it’s safe to say this chap was a bit of a loose cannon and it was clear he had been on the booze so the sight of his furious face was cause to drop the pad. Fag half hanging out of his mouth, pacing around the room like a scenery-chewing villain from a Guy Ritchie film, he proceeded to lay into us for having the gall to play a four player game with four players and not rushing out to fetch him first. “Oh well. This is very fucking cosy isn’t lads? Very cosy. Having a nice little game of Monkey Ball are you? HAVING A NICE FUCKING GAME OF MONKEY BALL?!” It’s rather difficult to take a hardman routine seriously when the subject is an abstract children’s game featuring a kawaii girl monkey with a bow in her hair. Safe to say we have drifted apart since.

This was all within our first year, and although many games came and went during our time together, Monkey Ball remained a constant. Occasionally we’d dabble in the glorious chaos of a Monkey Fight or the seemingly endless relaxation offered by a game of Monkey Golf, but really, it was all about bowling. The sequel smartly offered a twist on this winning formula by introducing the “crazy lanes”; a series of increasingly difficult challenges with warping, twisting alleys or pin protecting obstructions which made cunting over all the more difficult. I later read that Monkey Bowling was essentially “broken” and that strikes could easily be achieved by lining up in a certain way. I’m very pleased that none of us managed to stumble upon this One Weird Trick or the game would have effectively been ruined. Perhaps we would have done if we weren’t spending all our time trying to get into Mimi’s Golden Cunts.

You might think I’ve not spent a lot of this post explaining what makes Super Monkey Ball a good video game and you’d be completely right. But then sometimes what makes a game one of your favourites isn’t the quality of the game itself but how you remember it. It’s your tiny room rammed with new friends, passing the pad long into the night. It’s finding the perfect ice breaker, a game so gorgeous in simplicity that literally everyone wanted to play it. It’s someone pouring a pint of vodka and coke on your bed but you don’t care because your having too much fun, honest, it’s fine I’ve completely forgotten all about it. Like a song that reminds you of a special night, a game can be a reminder of the friendships that you forged that will hopefully last a lifetime.

And then it’s the simple joy of cunting those pricks over.

Anyone for a party game..?!

 

Retro Shitty Rampage Part 5

Yeah, I’m still doing this.

Despite the temptation to mug the project off completely (and it is a project, I’m bravely exploring the very boundaries of entertainment here), I have found myself inexorably drawn back to the shittest collection of 1’s and 0’s ever to grace a television screen. I’m not normally much of a completetist and I’m quite happy to abandon something the instant it stops being entertaining (which is why my family live in constant fear that I might not return home from work one day), but the possibilities for utter fuckwittery that remain within the confines of the controller are too much to resist. It’s like when I blow my nose; I can’t stop myself from having a little peek to see what fucking disaster has made it’s way through the system.

A lot has happened in the intervening months and it’s damning review of the quality of 2016 that the hilariously racist title screen of Shrew Mouse once seemed laughably out-of-place but now seems horrifically prophetic. But with over a hundred games to go and the apocalypse appearing ever more inevitable, it seems like I better get my skates on if I’m ever going to get this finished.

Hold your nose guys, I’m going back in.

197. Mouse Snare
Back in the good old days, when a candy could go about it’s business safely without fear of being crushed and Pokemon Go was simply a phrase used to shoo away a gentlemen baring a contagious rash, bored humans used to speed their passage to the grave by playing a game called Minesweeper.  Never one to pass up the opportunity to produce an inferior imitation, Mouse Snare sees you attempting to corner rodents rather than disarming explosives.  Not a very catchy title though; if only there were an established name for a device used to entrap mice.

5. Magic Jony 
Sharing it’s name with a brand of contraception you might find in a Weatherspoons toilet, things don’t get any less genital when you fire the game up and the titular character devours the enemy using a massive pink lipped flower. There’s no getting away from the fact that this weapon represents a huge, remorseless vagina, right? I’d like to phone a Freud.

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“Shit lads, Jony’s come up. Help me get him in.”

187 Ice Ocean
To my knowledge it’s never been fully explained why a race of erotic fish women would choose to swim about in their bras given that it must be bloody freezing down there, and it’s all the more confusing in this breakout clone as the player mermaid is completely topless despite being trapped under several foot of ice.  I daresay the lack of decent support would be all the more pronounced several leagues under the sea.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little bit of realism.

108. Sky Invader
“Nah, you see it’s nothing like it because they’ve broken through the atmosphere, whole different ball game.  And there’s only one, it’s not a plural if you look.  Well yeah, there’s more than one enemy in the actual game, but the title is referring to the hero….An invader can be good too…Well I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, no.  Jesus, why do you do this?  Picking flaws in everything I do. No, no, it’s fine, I’m sorry I snapped.  Perhaps you’re right. It’s been a long day. Shall I pick us up something nice from Waitrose..?”

103 Gold Digger
Kirby, the pink blob whose ability to suck in the mindless souls around him brings to mind Donald Trump, makes an unexpected appearance here and someone in the Retro Game Controller offices triumphantly crosses another name off the ‘Ideas to Steal’ list.  The aim is to collect letters and I cleared the first level by spelling the word ‘LEMAIN’, so it’s nice to see that the French Better Together campaign has got a good head start for when they lose their minds and trust the general public with a potentially catastrophic referendum. Despite sharing a name with one of his popular hits, the game itself is significantly more Kan-Nay than Kan-Yay.

21. Toy Factory
I find something inherently depressing about the concept of toy factory. I picture a grizzled sixty-year old chain-smoking to pass the time on her 15 hour shift. She stands next to a conveyor belt in a windowless grey box whilst a procession of genitally ambiguous torsos await capitation by her minimum wage hand. Environment destroying packaging increases their value by several thousand percent, before ungrateful spawn toss them into landfill the instant the next advert break comes on the T.V. What I don’t think of is a pink elephant dropping clocks into buckets. But that’s the beauty of language, these things are always open to interpretation.

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Absolutely no idea.

172. Dejectile
Everyone loves Bomberman with a group of mates, which is obviously why this bloody thing has chosen to pay homage to the universally ignored single player, lest it be even the remotest bit entertaining.  In order to add it’s own unique twist it’s borderline impossible to control, with your character throwing a strop when you have the cheek to try and turn a corner.  On top of all this, there’s something about the title that makes me think of a faulty penis.

106. Panzer Fly Car
God only knows what’s going on with that title which reminds me of a series of increasingly frustrated guesses as an elderly relative takes to  the pencil and paper in Pictionary, this driving game is so bad it’s enough to make you raceist. The engine noises sound like the tinnitus-enducing THX advert from the cinemas played through the phone speakers of some twat sat the back of the bus.

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“Distinctive looking title screen Jed. I like it. You’ll go far this business”

28. Move Box
“Let’s hear it for New York!” sang wonky hat queen Alica Keyes, presumably thinking that the city has been lacking some recognition despite being celebrated in practically every bit of media since forever. Fortunately, the Retro Game Controller is never one to miss a shout-out and uses the Big Apple as it’s backdrop for a reimagining of the fox, chicken, grain, river-crossing puzzle favoured by dickhead, riddle fans the world over. You’re probably thinking there’s not enough content for an entire game in a puzzle that can be solved in three minutes and you’d be absolutely correct.

169. Cookies Labyrinth
So what you’re saying is that we’ve got a maze full of small, edible circles? Nope, pretty sure that hasn’t been done before.  At risk of reigniting the incredibly wacky and tedious debate that we’ve all been through a billion times on what qualifies as a biscuit, the centre of the labyrinth is a gigantic pink wafer.

165. Bug Catcher
Catching bugs can either be a a good thing (“Look at this ladybird! On the gladiola!” ) or a bad thing (“Look at this gravy turd! I’ve got the ebola!”) which would explain why after ten minutes play I still wasn’t entirely sure if the aim of this game was to collect the insects or to avoid them. Mechanically similar to Fruit Pig (from Retro Shitty Rampage Part 3; you remember, of course you do), the key visual difference is that rather than controlling a smartly-dressed pig, your character is an armless Mini Boglin tottering around on its hind legs. It’s twice as disturbing in reality than it sounds.

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Mesut Ozil is a distinctive looking fellow, isn’t he?

117.Burrow Explorer
As suggested by the name, video games are a primarily visual medium which makes the decision here to plunge your character in total darkness an interesting one. Perhaps tells you more about my filthy brain but the phrase “Burrow Explorer” is a pretty repulsive image isn’t it? Like Sid James has somehow landed a job as a gynaecologist.

199. Mowing
Aside from their primary function as a way of ruining your neighbour’s Sunday morning lie-in, lawnmowers can also provide a valuable grass cutting service. Here you take control of one of these unnecessarily noisy bastards as it clears a lawn and uncovers all the valuable, beautifully cut gems that have carelessly fallen out of the gardeners pocket. We’ve all been there. Your main foe is a small dog, although given the size of the monsterous turbo-powered tank you’re driving I wouldn’t fancy the chances of a chihuahua against a Flymo Floral Fucker 4000.

193. Magic Egg 
I must apologise for the uncharacteristic lack of nuanced critique on the game mechanics, but the music for Magic Egg was so catastrophically awful that I quickly had to stop playing as my brain was starting to shut down my major organs in a last ditch attempt to save itself.  But as dreadful as the soundtrack is, at least it’s not quite as bad as the the title which sounds like something you’d stick up your bum to liven up a naughty cuddle.

107. Risker
We’ve not had a unashamedly blatant Nintendo game rip-off for at least twenty minutes so it’s good to see Risker; which is literally the NES game Excitebike but in a car; make an appearance. Fantastically, absolutely everything except the appearance of the vehicle is exactly the same. So you can do wheelies, shift your balance and your car does some weird ‘catch your breath’ animation should you crash. Not entirely sure what has gone on between Nintendo and whoever-the-fuck made this thing; perhaps Miyamoto bullied him at school or ran off with his banjo.

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I’m guessing Risker refers to the potential for legal action.

Wor and Peese

Writing a book is bloody difficult. Wander into a library and the sheer volume of them might suggest it’s as easy as sitting in front of a keyboard and flapping your fingers about for a bit; a theory that carries some weight if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to read a Dan Brown novel; but managing to hold your interest and confidence in an idea for hundreds of hours is really quite a challenge. I’m not even at the end of one paragraph of this yet and I’ve already gone on Twitter twice, stopped for a nice stretch and looked into the fridge for no real reason.

So imagine my surprise when I came home from work last week to discover my nearly six year old daughter had written, illustrated and bound an entire novel within the space of a few hours. I present this powerfully evocative examination of the human condition for your enjoyment below, completely unedited.

I do feel the need to point out that despite my customary pissy tone, I’m very proud of what she has managed to achieve here considering she has only just finished reception. It’s more coherent than some of the stuff I see from grown-ups and she’s at least attempting punctuation. Also, I think the publishing process may have put the pages out of sequence which accounts for the unusual numbering of the chapters.

All that considered, it is also pretty fucking funny. So get yourself an Ovaltine, set your jaws to drop and strap yourself in for some hardcore jackanory.

This, Dear Reader, is “Rig Roby Rig Roll”

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If you’re expecting this title to be fully explained, I’m afraid you’re going to leave disappointed

 

Rig and Rob wer a bruver and sister thay wer number 1 meen number 2 didnx go xo school number 3 laysay wen it was Rob’s birthday rig sed wen is it my birthday 6 day’s sed Mum but that’s ages sad rig i wont it now sed Rig now now now

They always say that you should open with a strong first sentence and she’s totally nailed it. They do sound like a challenging pair. Coincidentally, my daughter’s birthday is exactly six days after her brothers. Funny that.

 

Wen it was Rig’s birthday she laughed at Rob. Rob told Mum he shouted mum mum mum. Yes sed Mum what sed Mum what happened sed mum Rig laughed at me Ok sed Mum

Clearly drawing on her own bitter experience of a thoughtless, uncaring mother. The lack of discipline handed out for the heinous crime of laughing at you on your birthday surely explains why these children are so meen and laysay.

 

On Monday it was Dad’s berthday. He got a videogaem. thank you I love it.

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My wife hands me a gift over our ceremonial safe whilst I wear my customary top hat. A family tradition.

The birthday is a reoccurring motif. A day of celebration but also a milestone on the unstoppable march to the grave. I like what she’s saying here.

 

Chapper 3 I mis mum wers mum sed Rob evrthin went blak mum mum mum MUM evryone cried mum.

Bit dark.

 

Chapderder 2 Berthday fiet everyone was faeitoin with berthday evnn Mum

Here we see the first signs of her rejecting traditional narrative structure by returning to chapderder 2 after leaping to chapper 3. Are chappers and chapderders even on the same timeline? It’s like freeform jazz prose. Love it.

 

Chapper 5 the tv Mum the tv’s broakn sed Brook ther cat not agen sed Mum

Yeah, they’ve got a talking cat that repeatedly breaks the television. What, doesn’t that fit into your preconceived notions of where this story is going? Open your mind, squares.

 

Chapper 4 Hears Mum mum was sat on the couch ther you RA MUM

Emphasis is her own. I like to think this is her own version of the bit in The Shining when Jack sticks his head through the bathroom door.

 

the next day saly and Rig went to scoll Rob went to nersry thay love it Rob made cakes wen Rob got home he playd a gaem

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MASTERCHEF

After all those birthdays, that time when everything went black and the whole cat chat saga, no wonder they yearn for the structure that school or nursery can provide.

 

Chapder 8 plarnt’s Mum groad plarnt’s lots of them she love’s plarnt’s and cakes she loves trees too

“Right”, the reader thinks, “this chapter is about the mother’s love of gardening. Woah where did that cake come from? Then BANG back to gardening. This shit could go anywhere!”

 

Chapder 6 Saly Saly is not Rob’s frend bcos she is 10 Rob is 3 and Rig’s 7 it was niet tiem stars lit the scei

Blimey. A rather beautiful non sequitur after a challenging discussion of pre-teen social structure. Powerful stuff.

 

Chapder 7 mr tedy Rob has toi’s lots of them he had a tedy and robot and a rockit and crayons and a scuishy strobry

You kids with your YouTube stars and your overripe fruit. I can’t keep up with what’s popular these days.

 

Chapder 10 the zoo Rob and Rig got a treet thaay got to go to the zoo yae sed Rob I love the zoo let’s go now

I admire the dash of autobiographical realism she has injected into the characters of Rig and Rob. My children also seem to believe I have control over the speed at which time passes so it’s good to see art imitating life.

 

Chapder P meeny’s meen is not nies liek Saly and Rig thay ar meen meen meen thay ar not nies or fun not funy thay ar meen meen meen

I do think that perhaps Meeny’s parents should have given the name a bit more thought. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that.

 

Chapder 11 the vegees vevery one needs vegees you need veg liek this this this this and this and this this and this

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And don’t you forget it, alright?

This reminds me of the bits in American Psycho when Patrick talks in length about Huey Lewis and The News. Although the importance of a well-balanced diet can not be understated, I think where this fits in with the story of Rig Roby Rig Roll is up for debate.

 

Chapder 12 Spaes 1 day Rob went in a rockit one day Dad wood be with him

Has Rob literally gone on a trip to space? Or is he dead?  The second interpretation certainly gives the Dad line a menacing air.

 

Chapder 13 Bob and Bily Bob Bily Bob love’s this Bily loves this.

We’re approaching the conclusion and she’s still introducing whole new waves of characters showing a real level of respect for the reader. It’s like The Wire.

 

Chapder 14 Cake Rig love’s cake Rob love’s cake ginger loves this Scrap loves you

And again. Who are Ginger and Scrap? And is she addressing the reader directly there? Is the author Scrap? Didn’t Mum like cake? HOLD THE PHONE! Are Mum, Scrap and the author one and the same?!?!

 

Chapder 16 Dad Dad is magik he is brilyntly slow

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I do look a bit I’ve just lost my carer

Imagine returning from a hard day at the office to find that your beautiful child has written this magnificent novel; with a whole chapter dedicated to you; then just at the point when you think your heart might burst from your chest with pride she hits you with the most  insulting compliment ever committed to print. “Brilliantly slow”; at least I’ve got the wording for my gravestone sorted.

 

Chapder 15 cat’s smal big we love cats that ar cyoot

I’m kind of distracted now if I’m honest. Slow how?

 

Chapder 17 buy we sad bie buy buy buy buy

Yeah bye, you cheeky sod.

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Shy Guy

A few years back, I went to the doctor for some help with my insomnia and left being diagnosed with severe Social Anxiety Disorder.  Getting a two for one on mental health issues hardly seems like a fair deal and I rightly feel like I’ve been ripped off somewhere along the line, but as lodging official complaints and multiple telephone calls are exactly the kind of things that steer me towards panic attacks and sleepless nights I guess I’m just going to have to buckle down and get on with it.

Once I started to read up on the condition it became so abundantly obvious that it was something I’d been struggling with my entire life I may as well have been told that I had an Oxygen Inhalation Dependency or Sarcastic Prick Syndrome.  When I first moved into student accommodation, I locked myself out of my room and spent an hour hiding in the bathroom rather than talking to my new house mates in the kitchen.  This kind of thing seems perfectly rational at the time but in retrospect reads like the behaviour of someone who would eventually find themselves in the paper accompanied by the caption ‘and then he turned the gun on himself’.

I also, literally, didn’t speak to anyone for about nine months upon starting my current job. Mercifully the Christmas party rolled round and I was able to get completely shitfaced.  I guess one solution to this problem would be to spend my entire life drunk, but I do have the nagging suspicion that this may come with it’s own set of pros and cons.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of spending every waking moment terrified you’re going to have to have a conversation, Social Anxiety can broadly be described as a phobia of spending time with other people.  It goes a bit beyond ‘being a bit shy’ (which I had wrongly believed I was for many years) to the point that you worry excessively about these situations before, after and during their happening.  To clarify, it’s not that I don’t enjoy spending time with human beings it’s just that I feel the need to compile a vast project management dossier beforehand to make sure it all goes smoothly and then undertake a painstakingly detailed post mortem afterwards to see where I went wrong.  Honestly, Quincy would be proud.

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This fellas got the right idea. High five bro.

I’ve spoken to other people with the condition (a gathering of a group of people that struggle with groups of people is a pretty wild party, I can tell you), and one of the common themes is that your brain is shouts ‘OH MY GOD!  I’M HAVING A CONVERSATION!’ over and over whenever you decide to talk to someone. In the past I’ve found myself so preoccupied with trying to have a ‘normal’ chat that I’m not actually aware of the topic; I’m just vomiting sounds in a desperate attempt to stave off the threat of silence.

It’s all pretty exhausting and at my worst points made me wonder why I bothered spending time with other people at all.  The amount of enjoyment I got out of it didn’t seem worth the stress and strain I put in.  This is an unhappy paragraph.  Sadface.

But don’t worry because this is a happy paragraph where the life-affirming Elbow song kicks in.  I went to the doctors for a few months and read a couple of books and now have a whole bunch of tools that help me deal with it.  You’re still unlikely to find me in the pub with my arms draped around the shoulders of strangers singing a rousing rendition of The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There For You” but I’m also no longer likely to spend a weekend curled up on the sofa in a feverish, waking nightmare because I didn’t get mad thumbs on a Facebook status.

It’s weird old fucking thing, given that it’s both a symptom of a lack of self-confidence whilst also comes with the assumption that you’re the centre of the universe.  It’s a bit like when you wander into a village pub and everyone looks up from their pints to have a good old look at the outsider.  But rather than going back to their drinks they just carry on staring, and then get a pencil and pad out and start making notes and muttering to each other whenever you have the audacity to open your mouth.  One of the most important things I’ve learned is that not everyone is as obsessed with how I’m perceived as I am.  I know, I was surprised too.  Turns out you’ve all got your own shit going on.  Who would have thought?

Fortunately, it’s not all depressing narcissism, sometimes it’s pretty funny.  And as nobody reads anything on the internet that doesn’t have a list in it anymore, here’s 4 Weird Things My Social Anxiety Has Done (You Won’t Believe Number 2).

1. For our honeymoon, my wife and I went to the Ice Hotel in Sweden.  This is situated in the middle of nowhere and the one of the few sources of food is a mega fancy restaurant.  I ordered a risotto but they got my order wrong, lacing it with the largest, floppiest sweaty mushrooms I’ve ever seen.  In case it’s not clear from my description, I am not a huge fan of fungi but rather than send it back and potentially ‘make a scene’ I forced it down between huge gulps of wine, silently convulsing with every mouthful.  “Everything to your satisfaction, sir?” “Yes, lovely thank you”.  This is the most expensive meal I have ever eaten.

2. Our landlord was doing some work on a conservatory style extention we had coming off the living room.  Given that she was fifty-something and doing some quite manual labour and I was twenty-something and sitting on my arse playing Mario, my finely tuned ‘well-this-is-awkward” sense was already tingling.  “Steve?”,  she shouted.  “Yeah?”,  I instinctively replied despite this not being my name.  I had a good twenty minute window where it would have been suitable to correct this but decided against it, preferring instead to spend the next two years perpetuating the lie, terrified that my wife was going to give the game away.  We moved.

3. When you regularly walk to work at the same time every day you end up seeing the same people over and over.  One day a lady had the audacity to smile at me so I smiled back.  Not a broad, friendly smile or a cheerful ‘morning’, but a barely imperceptible movement of the lips like I had just secretly eaten a Tangfastic.  Unfortunately, this recognition of each others existence had opened the floodgates and we now had to smile at each other every single day. Doesn’t sound too much of a hardship, but then you’re probably the kind of person that doesn’t put the prospect of a seconds eye contact with a stranger in the same bracket as the twelve trials of Hercules.  I’d see her coming round the corner and find myself giving this moment of human interaction a ‘run up’.  Look at the floor, look at the floor, look at the tree, look at the floor, look at her face, smile.  Phew!  That’s over for another day.  Recognising that my options were either murder, suicide or change my walk to work I did the later adding another five minutes to my journey.

4.  A trip to the barber’s handily consolidates all my social anxieties into one monthly repayment. Looking at myself in the mirror, time alone with a stranger, forced conversation, being touched; the whole caboodle. Hairdressers are always such a confident bunch too; I once went to a place with whose small talk included the nugget ‘mate, what actually is fire?’.  I obviously didn’t go back.  Anyway until recently when I loosened up a bit (yes, the Jolly you see before you now is a pretty free and easy version believe it or not), I hated it so much that I managed to develop a ‘script’ to get me through. Part of this script was what I ask for as I sit in the chair which I memorised from a visit with my dad over twenty years ago.  What this does mean is that I can never have a different haircut; this is it now, stretching out into eternity. I’m rather fortunate my mum didn’t take me that day or I’d be in my second decade of looking like Kate Bush.

So there you have it.  Mental health issues can be fun as well as emotionally crippling.  I’ve had this piece sat in my drafts for a while now; trying to decide if laying it out like this is a particularly good idea.  But I’ve spent the last year or so purposefully putting myself in situations that I find difficult to tackle this motherfucker head on.  I’m bored of worrying about worrying.  I’m tired of not feeling involved.  And I’m sick of people assuming I don’t like them.  So come over here and give me a cuddle; I love you all really.

The Wee Stan Lee

I hope you’re sitting down because what you’re about to read may come as a shock; I am, and have always been, a colossal nerd.  I expect you read these posts in your head with the voice of Huey from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, such is the level of effortless cool that exudes from every flourish of punctuation, so the revelation that I look like a half-hearted cosplay of The Riddler may be difficult to accept.  But the unassailable truth is that I’m a thin, lanky, camp approximation of a man who possesses the kind of complexion that you can only achieve after endless summers of wrestling with the curtains in an attempt to stop sunlight shining off the television.  I’m like a vampire but without the benefit of the intense, brooding sexuality.  Yes, my wife is very happy, thank you for asking.

Despite essentially being a pre-punch George McFly, there are certain elements of geek culture whose appeal remains a mystery to me.  I’m probably the only person on the planet who knows a bit of SQL and doesn’t give a monkeys about either Star Wars or Star Trek. Any piece of media with a dragon, flagon or ‘ye olde speak’ takes a monumental amount of effort to win me over (I can just about tolerate Game of Thrones because phrases like ‘The tower is but a dawns break away!’ are normally followed by the offender having their face torn apart).  And I’m not a huge fan of comic book superheroes either; on the occasions that I have given it a bash finding that the medium either assumes that you know nothing and have to be told yet again how Bruce Wayne got his powers after being bitten by a radioactive iron or that you’ve been following absolutely every single development since the invention of the printing press.

My children on the other hand are both big fans of the forces of DC and Marvel; thanks in no small part to the sustained marketing push that’s been coming at them from all angles since the day they were born.  Like that bit in Being John Malkovich, Stan Lee is obviously no longer being satisfied with simply having a cameo in the films and now wants to be the only face future generations will ever see; his friendly mustachioed fizzgog ramming a collection plate at them from all angles like the Big Brother posters from 1984.

Thankfully, they are yet to have all semblance of imagination beaten out of them by ‘brand synergy’, and also enjoy creating their own superheroes, often with unexpectedly brilliant results.  I’ll never forget the day when my daughter, a middle class white girl from suburbia, proudly fired her fist into the air and informed my wife that her alter-ego was a crime fighter called ‘Black Power’.  What followed was a pretty nerve-wracking visit to the park, I can tell you.

Her brother, coming up to four years old, reels off characters at such a rate, that Lego have already been in contact about producing a toy range and a tie in video game.  Some of them are pretty good.  I’m a big fan of ‘Change’; a force for good who can alter his appearance at will; mainly because his name is a pretty forward thinking political statement from an author who still shits himself on occasion.  Others are less well-rounded; ‘Dontdothatboy’ presumably has a superhuman ability to give villains a stern ticking off.  And then there’s the third group whose skills and attributes remain a mystery.  These include ‘Spicyman’, ‘Bee-Ham’ and the enduring enigma that is ‘Foot Punk’.

In any case, a couple of weeks ago I was briefly gripped by madness and thought that it was possible to make the house a bit tidier.  Whilst doing so I stumbled across some hero and villain designs my daughter had made which I detail below.  I do so with the proviso that all future commercial activities arising from these characters remains the sole preserve of Soup Kitchen Comics.  Enjoy.

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I’m going to go ahead and make the assumption that Wight Boy is the nemesis of the aforementioned Black Power.  I’m not entirely sure that 2016 is the best time to unleash two characters with such racially charged monikers but she is a child of her time after all.

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Who’s this chap with the glint in his eye and the strangely defined knees?  Why, it’s Taiy the Testu, who sounds like he’s fresh off the set of one of the less popular Studio Ghibli films and looks like child’s interpretation of Keith from The Prodigy.  Give us a fist bump Taiy!

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Bert doesn’t let being a hideously mutated cat/beetle hybrid get him down and and such is truly an shining example to us all.  Stare into his eyes too long and you may start to hear Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

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Quite where my five year old daughter managed to find the inspiration for a rockabilly style, fantastically quiffed hero named Fearis is anyone’s guess, but his proud stance suggests to me that he’s ready to take on any challenge; even on his ‘day off’. HA!

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Edd looks like a wrong ‘un to me; I’ve encountered very view disembodied floating green heads that could be described as one of the good guys.  I’m guessing the lines beneath represent the force that keeps him levitated and are not meant to be an Egyptian hieroglyph of a broken vase.

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Fuck knows what’s going on here.  And I’m sorry to lower the tone, but I can’t see that protrusion from the chest of T-T Tonsn as anything other than a bloodied penis.

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Alex, my man!  Although Alex is totally my bro, don’t go running too quickly into his open arms.  Look carefully and you can see the sign of the beast branded into his chest and the souls of his fallen enemies trapped within his baseball cap.

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Check out the swag on Bob, here.  I’m a particular fan of his effortless eighty degree slant.  Combined with his hand signs, it looks like he’s giving mad props to all his bob-tailed bitches back at the burrow.

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I’m guessing the ‘Mows’ in Monchoo the Mows is meant to be ‘mouse’.  Not sure what ‘Monchoo’ is meant to be. It reads like Scottish slang for ‘hurry up’.

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I did consider leaving Mat out because really he’s just a perfectly acceptable child’s drawing of a cat.  But then there’s something about him that makes me imagine a feline with a human mouth which is just too wonderful an image to pass up.

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Now we’re talking.  Gaze upon the face of sheer determination that is Ningu Niclu.  Ningu doesn’t dick about by doing kicks and punches independently from each other.  And Ningu is PISSED.  Watch out forces of evil, ‘coz you’re about to get a nickling.

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At the danger of reading too much into these drawings, I can’t help but notice that Soafey has a backwards two on her front but that her reflection is facing the same way.  Is she trapped inside the mirror?  Or is she the mirror image herself?  Is she a master of reality, able to bend and manipulate perception to her will?   Also; huuuuuge great big smiley face on her vagina.

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Possessing a truly awesome haircut, Rain Rokstar wields her mighty harp and flying battle fortress which she handily disguises as a stage.  Despite having a name that sounds like an act that came eighth on The Voice, Rain also looks like one of spirits from the recent spate of Japanese ‘idol’ games; a reference that will mean absolutely nothing to all but three of you.  Really pleased I managed to work that one in.

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Gov, seen here setting loose one of the walkers from War of the Worlds, is actually a hardened east end gangster disguised as a three year old boy.  Don’t be taken in by his chirpy, chimney sweep exterior or you’ll get a right knifing you toilet.  Guy Ritchie has been in contact about using the character in his next film.  We’re all very excited.

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What at first glance appears to be little more than a child playing with his favourite toy, look beyond your preconceptions and you’ll find you’ve got Ben and his Boll the wrong way round.  The angry face on the ball,  the vacant look and outstretched arms of the larger character; surely the sphere is the master in this situation.  The 26 burned into the man’s chest suggest that he is not the first that has fallen into this trap.  Makes you think.

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Thankfully my wife is a body confident goddess who is forever challenging established beauty standards with her effortless style and intense eroticism  otherwise she might feel a little offended at being drawn as a giant egg.  In this picture I think she looks like one of those huge inflatable clown toys you used to get with a weight at the bottom so they couldn’t fall over.  Yes, I’ve already told you, my wife is very happy, why do you keep asking me that?